February 08, 2021


Written by Philippa Dowding
200 pp.
Ages 9-12
February 2021

While wearing a costume may give you an opportunity to be someone else, it also frees you from being the person everyone expects you to be. But when you're a child and don't know anything but the worst, who would you become? Something outrageous or something normal?

Living with a mother (whom she calls "Joanne-the-mother") who has addiction issues, thirteen-year-old Fifi has had to learn strategies to keep herself and her mother safe. Since she was very young, Fifi has had to deal with the trauma of negligent parenting, taking on what she could.

I've been Joanne-the-mother's guiding light, flashing her toward safety since I was six. (pg. 96)

Still a child, Fifi took to living rough in the park across the street from the house where her mother lived, hanging out with Moss Cart and sharing his food and advice, and then finding some help at Jennie's, a women's center where she got clothes and food and counselling. And she begins to call herself Firefly. But when her mother gets taken into custody–something for which Firefly blames herself–and social services becomes involved, Firefly is taken to live with her Aunt Gayle, a woman who'd lost touch with them after Joanne-the-mother's constant changing of locations and phone numbers.
Aunt Gayle, who owns The Corseted Lady, one of Canada's oldest costume shops, gives Firefly the normalcy of food and baths, clean clothes and television, and Firefly is overwhelmed. Even with the ordinariness of attending school again and helping out at the shop, Firefly is still plagued by nightmares and memories of the trauma of her mother being drunk or high and living with the vulnerability of that situation.
But The Corseted Lady gives Firefly opportunities to be something else, from a medieval warrior to a fly boy or a monk from the 1500s, and to honour those whose clothes pepper the shop. (Some are created but others are refurbished clothes from auctions, etc.) Better yet, no one thinks she's weird. 

These clothes are memories, shadows of all the people who lived in them. (pg. 64)

But author Philippa Dowding isn't telling us Firefly's story as dress-up play, as a little girl pretending to be someone else. Though the shop and its costumes are fascinating, colourful and rich in history and entertainment, as are the employees and customers, Firefly is about a child who has had to become an adult, who has endured trauma and negligence, and had to find ways to cope. She found ways to care for her mother who may have once had a job and provided for her daughter, even gifting her with a magazine subscription–funny what you remember–but became someone else, Joanne-the-mother, who made empty promises and poor choices. Firefly had to find her own way to getting food and clothes and a safe place to sleep. And when given the opportunity to become someone else, whether through costumes or actions, she accepts that she needs to resolve her own memories if she is to have a life for herself. That includes sharing her truths with others.

I know Philippa Dowding is better known for her speculative fiction like Oculum, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden and Everton Miles is Stranger than Me but I think her first foray into realistic fiction has demonstrated that she has important messages to share and she doesn't need to dress them up in the fantastical. Reality can be just as powerful and colourful, even if stitched with anguish.

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